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Friend and Ally - Shibasaburo Kitasato and Robert Koch

“The Japanese… are so kind and cordial in their demonstration of hospitality”, Robert Koch wrote from Japan in summer 1908. Together with his wife Hedwig, the Medicine Nobel Prize Winner had travelled to Japan to visit Shibasaburo Kitasato, his scholar and friend, whom he had not seen for 15 years.

Kitasato worked with Robert Koch in Berlin from 1886 to 1892 and achieved major success in the fight against tetanus: the medical scientist from Japan was the first to succeed in growing the tetanus germ (Clostridium tetani) in pure culture, and together with the later Nobel Prize Winner Emil von Behring he developed the serum therapy for the treatment of patients. The principle of passive immunisation developed in this connection continues to be applied today. During a plague outbreak in Hong Kong Kitasato isolated almost at the same time as the bacteriologist Yersin the plague bacillus. Many discoveries by Kitasato paved the way for modern immunology.

Kitasato worked with Koch initially at the Friedrich Wilhelms University. Foreign scholarships of the Japanese government were then only granted for three years. At the end of 1887 Kitasato applied to the Japanese Ministry of the Interior for a prolongation of his stay. Mori Ogai, who researched at the same time with Koch, supported the approval of the extension on the level of the Japanese authorities. On the German side, Koch stressed the need by proposing Kitasato for a promotion. Kitasato was the first Japanese and foreigner to be appointed Royal Prussian Professor. In 1891 he joined the newly founded “Prussian Institute for Infectious Diseases” at which Koch had been named as a director and which later on was named after him.

When Kitasato returned to Japan in 1892 he stayed in close contact with his German colleagues. Kitasato repeatedly invited Koch to Japan. In 1908 the visit then finally took place. After his arrival on 12 June Robert Koch stayed for more than two months in Japan. Kitasato organised trips, receptions and sightseeing and was almost permanently accompanying the Koch family. Koch also met Mori Ogai on that occasion.

Koch’s health had already been poor before he travelled but during the trip to the Kansai region he became ill. Kitasato was concerned and asked a chamber-maid, who was highly appreciated by Robert and Hedwig Koch, to accompany the couple back to Germany. Kitasato concluded a contract with Hana, the maid, initially for a period of three years to look after and nurse his estimated tutor.

After Koch’s death in Baden Baden on 27 May 1910, Hedwig Koch stayed in touch with Japan through Kitasato. She returned to Japan in 1912 for a ceremony at the memorial stone. During the First World War visits were not possible and later on resources were scarce. During that time Kitasato supported Hedwig financially and received a portrait of Koch to thank him for this support, which is still next to Kitasato’s picture in the Kitasato Institute. Kitasato was always loyal to his former tutor. On the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the tubercle bacillus, he organised a collection amongst Japanese medical scientists in support of the Robert Koch Foundation in 1932. Kitasato no longer witnessed the anniversary because he died in Tokyo in 1931.

The Kitasato Institute and the Robert Koch Institute follow the tradition of their founders. They are engaged in modern fundamental research in the field of life sciences, research the causes of diseases as well as prevention and treatment possibilities in order to make a contribution towards the improvement of the health situation. Delegations of scientists from the Kitasato Institute and the Robert Koch Institute are meeting regularly in the two countries.

The Robert Koch Institute also presented the exhibition “Robert Koch in Japan 1908-2008”, in which Kitasato played an important roll. The Japanologist Beate Wonde of the Mori Ogai Memorial at the Humboldt University in Berlin had designed and executed the exhibition, which was first shown there in 2008.

On 16 October 1908 Koch wrote from the USA to Kitasato: “I’d love nothing better than to return immediately to Japan. But given my age, I will probably have to abandon the idea of seeing Japan once more.”

Date: 18.04.2012